Twice to the AFC Championship Game and vanquished one game away from the Super Bowl. Do they go the way of the 70s Houston Oilers or 80s Cleveland Browns who made it to the pinnacle of the conference only to fall back into obscurity. Or fulfill their promise like the ’94 49ers, after losses in ’92 & 93, then advance to a Super Bowl win? Time will tell but as we go to press today, the Jets have released center turned tackle Damien Woody and are parting ways with DE/OLB Jason Taylor, NT Kris Jenkins, and OLB Vernon Gholston. The loss of Jenkins and Taylor would hurt the team from a locker room standpoint yet Gholsten has underachieved to record levels. Yet don’t be surprised when / if Jenkins or Taylor are brought back later. I don’t see either being pursued by other teams and no, Taylor is not going to go back to Miami.
The Jets have an ‘esprit de corps that permeates their roster yet they seem to be on borrowed time with a smaller window than most elite teams. This is a veteran laden squad that really leans on veteran leadership to offset the bombast of Rex Ryan to keep the team on point. There are moments where veteran players bridge the gap between Coach Ryan’s declarations and the work that needs to be impressed into the young players minds to make that happen. Careful New York, don’t let too many of these guys get away.
Quarterback: Very young Mark Sanchez, whom former USC / present Seattle Seahawk Head Coach Pete Carroll proclaimed wasn’t ready for the NFL. (Cue laughter) This is the only quarterback in the NFL to defeat both Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in a single season playoff run. Understand what you are seeing here and yes the Jets are a run first / pass second team. Its a more traditional take on how to run offense yet no other quarterback in history was asked to defeat 3 consecutive Super Bowl winning quarterbacks in one post season run. Yet he didn’t crack under the pressure and proved to be a leader on the rise until the bitter end. After throwing for 5 TDs and only 1 interception in last year’s playoffs, Sanchez was seen rallying the troops on the sideline (most notably) on camera with Jerricho Crotchery that the cameras picked up in the waning moments of the AFC Championship. This kid is the real deal.
Speaking of kid, its imperative that his brothers who run most of his business affairs, keep him from the pratfalls that could derail a tremendous career. He’s a traditionalist in terms of finding a rhythm once the rushing game has established its dominance but hell Bart Starr played that way. However look at the improvement Sanchez provided in year two: 17TDs to 13 ints v. 12 TDs to 20 ints in year one. That same level of improvement, however unlikely, would be Mark throwing for 25TDs and only 6 interception and that I could promise you would be those of a Super Bowl champion.
Unlike Joe Flacco, Sanchez is improving as a quarterback. His play in the second half of football games, AFC Championship included, Sanchez has thrown for the go ahead touchdown on 4 occasions last year. His improvement can be measured in the coaching staff asking him to throw more than his rookie season. Although his completion percentage stayed the same (53.8 to 54.8) he threw for nearly 900 more yards. He was asked to throw 507 times last year as compared to 364 times during his rookie year and he threw 7 LESS interceptions in his sophomore year. Detractors of his play need to take a long look in the mirror because thats legitimate improvement.
Playing in the fishbowl that is the New York media, Rex Ryan has been brilliant at deflecting the heat of winning and losing onto himself allowing for his young quarterback to flourish with minimal pressure. Mark Sanchize is on the rise.
Offensive Backfield: This backfield has one more season in its present state. Shonn Greene and Ladainian Tomlinson spelling each other allows the Jets to go with the hot hand during various games as well as share the pounding. This allowed Tomlinson to have lively legs toward the end of the season. But lets face it he came into the season with a chip on his shoulder to show that he can still play and came in in great shape. This proud future Hall of Famer ran for 914 yards in his first season in Gotham, up from the 730 yards the season before, even though he ran 4 FEWER times than his last in San Diego. He showed the burst that many thought he lost a few years back. The Jets believe they can coax another season out of him and we believe so as well. His locker room impact is even greater than his on field presence but his shelf life will run out after this season as a player.
As for Shonn Greene, he was asked to take on more of the heavy lifting at running back and had a decent second season. However his averaged dropped to 4.1 per carry from 5.0 as a rookie. Teams game planned for him more and were affective in slowing his production. Greene has patient feet yet sometimes runs up the back of his blockers. This can be seen as a positive or a negative depending on how the play ends. One of the better plays came as he bounced out the game clinching touchdown run that sealed the Patriots fate in the playoffs. Although he believes he can pound the football and move the pile, he can get thrown for an occasional loss. Greene slip some of those solid hits and prolong your career. He ran for 766 yards and may run for 900 this year. Teams will plan for Sanchez to be better at throwing the football and allow for the Jets to run for even more yardage this year. Greene will be the big beneficiary of that with LT taking more of a supplemental role earlier in this new season. A draft pick should be spent at RB to prepare for LT’s imminent departure.
Receivers: Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards are a good match as a set of receviers. Edwards handling the intermediate routes and Holmes as the game breaker. Uh…well not quite. A closer look at the numbers shows that they were close in receptions (Edwards 53 rec. / Holmes 52 rec.) yet Edwards gained 904 yards to Holmes 746. Their combined 13 touchdowns and yardage should be up with a maturing Sanchez. With that being the case look for fewer catches for Jerricho Crotchery who caught 41 passes last year. This year there will be more plays called for Holmes to get short passes in space and gain yardage after the catch. This is a solid threesome at receiver. They could use a draft pick here to obtain a speedy receiver who could double as a returner.
Offensive Line: This team just took a hit with the loss of tackle Damien Woody. Hopefully there is a succession in place because this team may need to re-sign him if there is a drop in production. For this was the 4th best rushing offense in football rushing for 2,374 yards and a lofty 4.4 yard average. As a group this team tied for 7th giving up only 28 sacks so hopefully this a cap relief and resign move. Nick Mangold, Matt Slauson, D’Brickshaw Ferguson, and Brandon Moore make up the nucleus of a solid line that will be a cohesive unit for years to come. With Moore the only linemen who has more than 5 years experience. Mangold is a Pro Bowler center and first team all pro, who is in the prime of his career. A solid anchor that will make all the blocking audibles along this very solid front. This line is Super Bowl ready.
Defensive Line: Shaun Ellis is entering his 11th year and is still stout against the run but slowing as a pass rusher. Well partly, a 3-4 end usually is running twists and stunts to free linebackers and other blitzers to get to the quarterback. Rex Ryan would be happy to get more than 4.5 sacks out of his starting end to keep him from blitzing. The Jets parted ways with NT Kris Jenkins who has been hit with too many injuries as of late. Age and injuries have slowed one of the best run stuffers in recent years. Don’t be surprised if they bring him back as an insurance policy when the playoffs near. DE Mike Devito is adequate but not spectacular. This team could use a few draft picks on their D-line, this team needs a jolt when it comes to rushing the passer. They haven’t replaced John Abraham as a top shelf pass rusher. Could easily see the Jets draft several pass rushers as they did with Abraham and Shaun Ellis back in 2000.
Linebackers: Absolutely the heart and soul of the defense. There isn’t a better set of inside linebackers than Bart Scott and David Harris. Scott is the emotional leader and a physical hitter with great tackle to tackle range. Playing next to a great talent makes one either shrink or raise their level of play. The latter is what has taken place with “Hitman” Harris, who was designated this year’s franchise tag to keep him from leaving via free agency. He’s averaged 107 tackles and 3 sacks over his 4 years in New York and also provided the signature play in the AFC Divisional upset of New England. His 58 yard interception return in the 1st quarter was the first hint that Tom Brady was about to have a long day.
The aforementioned Bart Scott is the soul of this defense. His intensity and strong play is why Ryan brought him in from Baltimore the moment he got the head coaching job in Gotham. In his two seasons in New York Scott has averaged 86.5 tackles and is still in his prime entering his 10th season. Scott and Harris punish runners and smother tight ends on underneath routes. Hopefully the Jets can get an injury free season from OLB Calvin Pace who no longer has Jason Taylor sharing time with him. Taylor was released earlier this week yet maybe a cap insurance policy to be brought back later in the season. Pace will need to produce the 10.5 sacks that he and Taylor combined for in ’10. With Bryan Thomas coming in from the other side (6 sacks) this is as solid a set of linebackers in the NFL. Near Super Bowl quality.
Secondary: OK I was guilty of giving Darrelle Revis grief for getting beaten a few times early last year but lets face it, he didn’t get a proper training camp in and was back to his usual self when he rounded into game shape later in the season. His 0 interceptions last year was an anomaly and he will be there from day one of camp and will return to the shut down corner averaging 5 interceptions per year. Antonio Cromartie came through with a good season also. He battled Randy Moss to a standstill in that early season matchup against New England. His long arms throw off receivers when he gets physical and jams wideouts and not depend solely on his athleticism. Revis and Cromartie are entering their 5th and 6th seasons respectively and remind me of the Hanford Dixon / Frank Minnifield pairing in Cleveland in the 1980s. Do not be surprised if they both make the pro bowl and a strong interception total by Cromartie as teams throw away from Revis. A 10 interception season by Cromartie is not out of the question. Nickelback Drew Coleman is a solid 3rd corner and affective blitzer.
Jim Leonard is quietly one of the leaders of this defense and is affective in keeping the secondary together. A coach on the field also doubles as the team’s punt returner. The Jets missed him in the playoffs and for a Super Bowl run they’d be better served with their captain. Pool and Smith are solid at the free safety position as well. As a unit, this could be the best secondary in football, certainly in the AFC and they are Super Bowl quality.
Overall: This team is primed to reach Super Bowl XLVI, make no mistakes about it. A friend of mine, Randy Davis was right about this team being the real deal last year and I wasn’t sure. After that playoff run I am totally sold. This isn’t just Rex Ryan talk either. If you analyze this team as I have you’ll see that there are no obvious weaknesses. A quarterback who is growing in stature and on the verge of a breakout season. An organization with a signature playoff win against New England that has them brimming with confidence. The key is for them to not get overconfident and remember that sick feeling they had as the time ticked away in Heinz Field last January.
I can’t say it enough but Mark Sanchez is on the cusp of super stardom. He’s young, mobile and grew a thick skin during the ’10 playoff run. With the NFL having played exhibition and a regular season game in Mexico, where American football has tremendous popularity, its befitting to see a rising Hispanic star come to the forefront. Uh…Pete Carroll you missed, this kid is ready and he already has the NFL all time record for road playoff wins with 4. He will improve even further and once this team gets home field advantage…yes this is going to be the AFC participant v. the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLVI. Move over Broadway Joe, Mark Sanchize, Bart “Can’t Wait!” Scott, LT, David “Hitman” Harris and Rex Ryan are about to make a Super Bowl run. Long suffering Jets misery should come to an end next February.